Today’s economic environment, with its stubbornly high level of unemployment, is pressuring liberal arts institutions to justify the "value proposition" offered by our undergraduate programs. This was one of the concerns that brought leaders together at Wake Forest University for a conference in April, focusing on careers and the liberal arts in the 21st century. In particular, we are being asked to explain how a liberal arts degree advances employment prospects at a challenging time that many believe favors immediately applicable, career-ready skills.
Along with my peers at other liberal arts colleges, I regularly articulate the value of a liberal arts education: providing interdisciplinary opportunities for analytical, problem-solving and adaptive learning that produce graduates who think creatively, innovatively and expansively; express themselves persuasively; and operate ethically as citizens committed to making a difference in a constantly transforming world.
Candidly, many people feel this rationale sounds more philosophical than practical. With more than a decade of experience in the field of career development, I could cite countless examples of liberal arts graduates who embody these skills and whose professional successes would quickly silence the prevailing rhetoric about the practicality of the liberal arts. But rather than cherry-pick stories from the hundreds of students I’ve advised, an analysis of the educational credentials of leaders in the business, nonprofit, and government sectors of our economy may help to stem the notion that a degree in the liberal arts is impractical.
According to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s classification system, there are 270 U.S. baccalaureate colleges that offer arts and sciences programs -- the designation that most closely aligns with the mission of liberal arts colleges and includes Grinnell and our peer institutions. These schools represent a subset of the 4,634 U.S. higher education institutions in the Carnegie database, and just 2.2 percent of students enrolled in U.S. undergraduate programs attend these colleges.
Consistent with these statistics, one might extrapolate that societal leaders would reflect a similar distribution with 2.2 percent holding degrees from baccalaureate institutions offering arts and sciences programs. However, after analyzing data from three distinct sources, a striking difference revealed itself – one that demonstrates a strong correlation between a liberal arts education and career leadership positions in the business, nonprofit and government sectors.
In researching the undergraduate institutions of leaders in these three broad fields, the Grinnell College communications team and I consulted three data sets: for businesses, the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; for nonprofit organizations, leaders from The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Philanthropy 400; and, for government, the 100 U.S. senators. In each case, the undergraduate institutions these leaders attended were coded in accordance with the Carnegie classification system.
Overall, 11.33 percent of the leaders across the above three sectors graduated from baccalaureate colleges that offer arts and sciences programs. That’s more than five times the expected 2.2 percent incidence of enrollment in baccalaureate arts and sciences colleges based on Carnegie’s classification. Looking at each sector individually, 11.75 percent of Philanthropy 400 leaders, 12 percent of U.S. Senators and 10.87 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs received their undergraduate education at baccalaureate arts and sciences colleges, i.e., liberal arts institutions.
These findings suggest that a liberal arts education may be a significant contributor to the career success of leaders in the business, government and nonprofit sectors. Today, perhaps more than ever, our nation’s leaders need to be able to strategically think and plan, deftly interpret changing global conditions, effectively marshal expansive resources and collaboratively guide teams of diverse people. Students at liberal arts colleges are challenged and supported to cultivate these skills throughout their coursework and co-curricular activities and then apply them during undergraduate research projects, volunteer experiences, and internships.
In today’s job market, many people are urging liberal arts colleges to refocus our academic efforts on career preparation. While those of us who lead career development programs at liberal arts institutions are very serious in our commitment to cultivating a dynamic learning community that allows students to grow and develop in remarkable ways, we also know that the educational experiences we offer are especially effective in fostering the enduring, broadly applicable skills needed for the workplace of tomorrow. In fact, the data presented here clearly illustrate that liberal arts graduates will not only be well-positioned for career success, but that many of them will be poised to become our nation’s next leaders.
Mark Peltz is associate dean and director of career development at Grinnell College.
I was seated in the bleachers at an away football game when the father of a student-athlete approached me. He was eager to welcome me as the new president of Central College. It was the fall of 2010 and I was climbing a steep learning curve, trying to remember names and faces, and navigating the awkward reality that virtually everyone I encountered knew more than me about the college. It was a time of humble listening, which has proven to be an incredible gift.
This father greeted me with a smile and a handshake, describing his son who was playing on the field. I was warmed by his affection for his son and his very high regard for the college. He told me a story. Early in his son’s freshman year, a biology professor offered students enrolled in an introductory course an extra study session to review the course material before the first scheduled exam. With the encouragement of his father, the son attended the session and reported that his professor joined the study group from 7-9 p.m. For most students, this was likely their first college-level test. At 9 p.m., the professor, a very experienced tenured member of the faculty, stood to leave. As he walked away he said to the students, “I’m going now. Here is my home phone number. If you have any more questions, give me a call any time before 11 p.m."
The father looked me in the eye and said, “I think you should know that this is the kind of college you are leading.” As our conversation ended, I began a journey – one that has enabled me to embrace my role as an educator, to challenge a lot of current assumptions, and to reject much of the conventional wisdom floating around in higher education today.
Welcome to the Party
Less-elite liberal arts colleges,
which have struggled with change
for years, may have some lessons
to teach the elites. Read more.
In 2013, I will celebrate 30 years as an administrator in the college and university setting. During this rewarding career I have listened with interest to analysts, authors, conference presenters, policy wonks, legislators and colleagues I deeply respect. The prevailing view of liberal arts colleges has been consistent for most of my career. It goes something like this, “Only the very well-endowed, elite institutions will survive. The rest should make other plans.”
I understand the challenges and vulnerabilities facing liberal arts colleges, but we seem to be projecting the demographic and economic challenges of a few institutions – those that have suffered fatal wounds from rapidly falling enrollments, continuous leadership transitions, and fiscal mismanagement – on the entire universe of small, independent, residential, academic communities.We hear constantly about threats of reduction in federal and state funding and a crisis of confidence in the quality of education -- and we hear an amazing number of references to climbing walls.
I must admit to being puzzled. My conversation in the bleachers with Football Dad has been repeated time after time with Transformed Student, Grateful Parent, Committed Alum, Generous Donor and Enthusiastic Business Leader. My constituents are not parroting the pundits. They are contradicting them. So I decided to stop listening to the experts and deepen my conversations with those interested and invested in the learning community I am privileged to lead. The results have placed me on a path to reform I didn’t expect.
James A. Garfield was president of the United States for a brief time in 1881. Though his life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet, historians note his many contributions to our nation. During his years as an undergraduate at Williams College, Garfield was the beneficiary of both the teaching and leadership of Mark Hopkins, who served as president of the college for 36 years during an even longer career as a member of the faculty. Garfield’s admiration for Hopkins is remembered through his still famous quote:
The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.
For educators, the image is poetic. It stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric we hear today. Many voices are calling for an educational approach designed for efficiency – less time to degree completion, fully online programs of study and customer convenience. It’s a very transactional model resting on the individual accumulation of credits, courses and credentials. By checking boxes to fulfill requirements we assume we can efficiently declare an individual educated. It’s all nice and neat.
An education at “the other end of the log,” however, is not transactional – it’s relational. The opportunity for faculty to spend time with students is not at all efficient, but our experience tells us it’s incredibly effective.
The stories I hear from alumni tell of the unexpected twists and turns that naturally accompany learning about ourselves, others and the world. Some describe a sure decision for a major as a high school senior, later set aside when the inspiration of learning set them on a new path. Others recount tales of international study that opened new global perspectives and broader cultural awareness. Interns sometimes discover a reality different than anticipated, leading to a change in direction. It’s all very inefficient, but highly effective if personal transformation is our educational imperative.
A great undergraduate education is by its nature very messy. Our students become explorers of old patterns and creators of new ideas. They journey through tough questions without easy answers. They learn in teams rather than in isolation and are eager to share knowledge and experience. They seek flexibility and customization in shaping their unique experience of learning. They encounter failure and learn how to be resourceful and resilient. An education of this kind is not about job training; it’s about setting the course for a lifelong journey.
My conversations with parents these days are the most interesting. They have really been shaken by the Great Recession. They feel the stakes are very high in making the right choices and they wonder if they are enabling their sons and daughters to make the best decisions – for a lifetime.
That’s a lot of pressure. As I describe the messy version of education and the inevitable wandering path of students they seem to relax a bit. It’s amazing what happens when you tell parents that the ideas first-year college students have about their future lives and careers are wrong most of the time. After the initial shock, I ask them to think about their own life journeys and the extent to which they had it right at the age of 18. The smiles betray the realization that conventional wisdom is not very helpful after all. The gifts we bring as educators are time and space necessary for enabling students to develop many possible futures through varied courses of study, diverse experiential education settings, challenging international opportunities and a customized set of co-curricular activities.
So here is my current thinking after a two-year journey of listening to my constituents, who have enabled the success of this college for nearly 160 years and have reinforced with me the commitment they have to sustaining this mission for the future.
I have great admiration and respect for institutions in all sectors of postsecondary education. The task of educating our society is enormous, and one size will never fit all. The diversity of higher education has always been its strength.
However, those of us in small institutions need to stop emulating larger ones. When our professional staff members attend conferences, they are often hearing from presenters from larger campuses. The problem is we are failing to contextualize what we are hearing. If our overriding mandate is to be relational, not transactional, then we must carefully filter what we are told is a best practice and embrace only that which will reinforce our educational purpose.
The range of programs and services, events and activities, and policies and procedures we are told we need to have in place is overwhelming. It’s simply too much for the scale of our institutions. The compartmentalization of our administrative organizations may meet expectations for professional practice, but it’s incoherent to students who survive the periodic trip through the bureaucratic maze.
The calendar is packed with departmental lectures scheduled against intercultural opportunities, as we seek audiences for concerts and fans for the next game. Individually these opportunities are all very worthwhile, but as a collection they result in low attendance, disappointment from sponsors and fatigue among students.
Our academic programs are too isolated from one another as specialization has created intellectual distance, departmental focus and divisional separation.I find faculty amazingly tolerant of the organization, but incredibly eager to cross the lines of academic disciplines. For all the time, energy and money we devote to the care and feeding of the organization at all levels, you would think that our efficiency and productivity would result in high levels of satisfaction and rewarding experience for students and faculty.
The reality is quite the opposite. What I hear consistently from graduating seniors, alumni and faculty is that it was the people who mattered most in creating an amazing experience –not the organization. We need to get out of our own way and facilitate the formation of meaningful educational relationships.
For example, Central College is implementing a new education model we are referring to as an approach for Integrated Learning. It’s a back-to-the-future idea about student learning. We have appointed four class deans who will stay with their respective classes of enrolled students for all four years of the educational experience. The first person our admitted students met on campus visits this spring was their dean. Paired with these class deans are four class directors. The class directors are student affairs professionals who are experts in one particular year of the four-year experience. They don’t follow the class, but partner with each dean as the class rotates and the four-year process unfolds. Applied to this organization is a developmental model that will integrate learning outcomes for students through reasonably predictable stages of development. It’s a cross-functional team approach – each class dean partnered with a class director, the class deans working together as a group, the class directors working in partnership, and altogether we call them “The Great Eight.”
We added no new full-time positions to our faculty and staff ranks to develop this approach. The positions for class deans are being implemented through reduced teaching loads for faculty, enabling them to build this fundamental relationship with students as educators and advisers. The roles of class directors have been crafted through a comprehensive reorganization of a traditional student life office into a program of student development. The experiences of students in the life of the organization will be different. It’s a relational model. Instead of expecting them to adapt to our organization, we will make the organization meaningful for them in the right place at the right time. For me this is a scaled-up, modern day version of “the other end of the log.”
We need to get back to thinking like educators. In a recent article in Change magazine I offered the following reflection:
It feels nearly impossible to rethink the educational enterprise. It’s tempting to accept so much as given and completely impervious to change. Yet if we believe we are educators, then we want to model for students the integration of knowledge, disciplines and experience to solve complex problems. This kind of problem-solving is very, very messy. But if we want students to learn it, we need to become less concerned about running students through gates for our convenience and more about creating environments that foster such learning – or as some are bold enough to say, personal transformation.
It’s never been a better time to be a liberal arts college. If we listen to the voices of our core constituents and hear what they truly want; remind ourselves we are educators committed to creating great learning environments; and set aside well-intended, but misguided conventional wisdom, we will find the path forward.
The fiscal collapse of 2008 exacerbated a malaise for many of us in colleges and universities. We feel besieged from within and without, as the public seems to have turned against us. Texas A&M University now has done a thorough cost accounting, publicly valuing all faculty in terms of productivity. All over, public spending for higher education is being cut to the bone. There is a revolt against the high tuition at many private universities. And there is the spate of recent books from a cadre of academics themselves who blame the academy for failing in its mission.
Mark Taylor, Andrew Hacker and the recently published book entitled Academically Adrift have held up a magical mirror showing higher education’s dysfunctional present and a dystopian and unsustainable future, one where students don’t learn, more education takes place online than face-to-face, tenure does not exist and many small, private universities and colleges are gone. The journalist Anya Kamenetz goes one further in her recent book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, when she argues that the university as we know it is obsolete, as a generation of “edupunks” educate themselves.
Under this level of bristling assault, it is easy for academics to bury our heads in the proverbial sand. We have already begun the long slog through the academic year, as our shoulders are against the proverbial wheel. The rhythm of the academic calendar tells us we can't relax until we make it through the academic year. We no longer have the luxury to wait until summer to recharge and rethink how we make ourselves relevant in a world that seems to no longer respect college.
This crisis is nowhere more marked than in the liberal arts, as we feel particularly vulnerable to market forces and often feel disconnected from social engagement. Some of this is the result of students flocking to majors that they feel offer job opportunities after graduation: business, health-related fields, some of the sciences, technologies, etc. They are not rushing to major in sociology or history. This has caused many of us in the traditional liberal arts to become increasingly defensive and too often derisive of what we label “vocational education.”
We cannot and should not hold our noses or draw lines in the sand because it is a losing battle. We should use the moment to reinvent what we do and reconnect us to the world. We are searching for models that will make us relevant, make sense to the public in this political and economic reality, and better serve our students. And for some of us, this reality has turned us to the past, where we may feel we got things right and had a sense of place. In uncertain times, the past offers some us comfort. Yes, one has to just read the memoirs or biographies of the great academics of the 20th century to realize the past is indeed a foreign land. Some of us might make it to superstar status and enjoy this lost rarified world. Most of us, however, will need to soldier on.
We find ourselves in anxious times because everything we value is now questioned and challenged. This intense scrutiny has caused a crisis of identity for the humanities and social sciences, as more and more the public asks us to justify not just the costs of a liberal arts education but its ultimate value. So we need to truly examine and explain the value of a liberal arts degree and search for ways to become relevant again. We can no longer just say, in a sense, take it because it is good for you and society, as if the liberal arts were some sort of foul medicine that we needed to take but needn't like.
We know this is not the case, but in a market place where families are investing a small fortune for their children's college education, we have to show a tangible return -- by rooting programs in the real world they become more relevant. We need to finally ask who are we in today’s crowded and ever-changing higher education marketplace? How can we get students, employers, legislatures and others to see see the liberal arts are not a luxury, but a true necessity? We need to stop telling and start showing. In short, we need to model a new knowledge creation process. We need to live it.
I would suggest that we are witnessing a moment in the history of higher education where what we do now will matter intensely for the future.
This is a moment of formation and transformation, where everything seems to be on the table. Some argue that one model for our salvation might lie, in part, in the past, or the particular example of some golden age, as most of the recent books on the crisis in higher education look romantically at the last 50 years as a sort of last hurrah for a sort of education they saw as ideal in many ways.
This is not the time for us to get dewy-eyed over what is being lost. We need to be pragmatic and embrace the new reality, challenges and all, and find a way forward. This is the exact moment we need to end any notions of the university or college as a protected or safe intellectual zone, one separated from the world. We need to embrace the world we inhabit, with all its complex social problems, and break down what are by now artificial barriers between colleges and universities and the wider world.
Michael Crow, the president at Arizona State University, has challenged all of us to make the “university … more than a place.” Crow argues that the university needs to be a “force” for change in the world. Maybe many of our campuses can’t change the world, but they can engage their communities. Imagine if each of our institutions became a force for change locally. The collective effort could reverberate loudly, providing both support and the tools for a better world. But it could also win over legions of fans who see tangible value from the local college. And, all evidence shows, engaged learning is higher learning. So our students benefit, too.
The current crop of critics are right that we need to rethink our mission, and I applaud them for recognizing the need for change.
Universities need to find ways to foster critical introspection and intellectual growth in the midst of a rapidly changing world. But hasn’t that always been the case? Universities are not stagnant institutions. Rather they are organic, breathing in society problems and all. Evidence from Imagining America, Campus Compact, and Project Pericles, among others, suggests that knowledge in motion, or civically engaged learning, creates intensive pathways that reinforce knowledge, creating enhanced learning outcomes. In short, it provides better and deeper educational opportunities for students. Part of a college education must require education that is rooted in society -- even the messiness of it -- not apart from it.
Those of us in position of leadership have a unique challenge. We need to support faculty, provide resources (including “silence and space”), respect governance, and encourage students. But, in the end, we need to lead in this time of great transformation. Each college will need to find its own way. There is no magic, one-size-fits-all bullet to solve the crisis. Using the resources at hand, fostering and nurturing faculty and taking advantage of geography (our space and place in communities) will enable us to move forward.
I am not saying everyone needs to do civic engagement. Surely this is ludicrous, impossible and would have disastrous effects. Rather, I would suggest that in focused and deep ways, colleges develop lasting partnerships within the community. It might mean for one school adopting a school district to improve education for all. Or, for another, researching and developing policy suggestions for environmental impact issues. We have great resources: some of the smartest experts in the nation, an army of eager students who want to apply their research and a world of problems. Through sustained and meaningful partnerships, colleges can have a positive impact on society.
These efforts will tie colleges more visibility into the world they inhabit. By becoming part of the community fabric they will be viewed as a resource rather than a liability or unknown entity. This alone, however, will not solve our crisis. There will need to be a thorough rethinking of how higher education is financed.
Part of the crisis in the liberal arts is of our own making and we need to recognize our role in it. We have retreated into our disciplines, and subdisciplines, speaking to fewer and fewer people about narrower and narrower topics. We deride public intellectuals as sellouts. We have become, in a word, smug. So, rather than model the university as a modern cloistered haven in a heartless world, let’s return to how John Dewey saw it. “Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.”
And life should not be lived walled off. By joining the world, combining the classroom and the streets, will we regain our place in the world and better serve our students and teach our students not to be afraid of the world, but to fully inhabit it.
Richard Greenwald is professor of history and social sciences and dean of St. Joseph College in New York City. His forthcoming book is The Death of 9-5: Permanent Freelancers, Empty Offices and the New Way America Works (Bloomsbury).